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I’ve Had 2 Mother Tongues Since Childhood, and It’s Not as Cool as Everybody Thinks

Hi, my name is Ksenia and I’m bilingual. There are many of us in the world — nowadays, more than half of the population speak at least 2 languages in their everyday life. This number continues to grow thanks to travel, globalization, the Internet, and mixed marriages. But even an adult can become bilingual if they live in a different country and speak the local language more often than their mother tongue which they use only to communicate with their families.

I thought it would be useful for Bright Side readers to know what difficulties I, as a bilingual person, usually have, and know which language I dream in and whether it’s worth pushing your child to study as many languages as possible.

No one is born bilingual.

A child whose parents come from different countries becomes bilingual because they have to speak one language to communicate with all their classmates at school, and the other to talk to their parents at home. A foreign language teacher isn’t bilingual since they only speak a foreign language during lessons, meaning they don’t use it in their everyday life.

A bilingual person lives in the environment of both languages at the same time. As a result, their brain doesn’t work better, it just works differently. They can easily switch between different tasks, they use the knowledge from different categories to solve a single problem, and they have an out-of-the-box way of approaching things.

When I was little, my parent got divorced and my mother and I moved to Yugoslavia where she got married again. In Belgrade, I went to kindergarten, and then to school. I had to speak Serbian there, while at home, I studied Russian. My grandmother would bring me Russian books and textbooks. I also watched Russian cartoons on TV. I spoke Russian only at home.

When I was a child, I never really thought about this difference. I just knew that there were people to whom I had to speak in Serbian, and there were others with whom I used Russian. It’s like when you call people by their names — you just know that a person won’t react a certain way if you call them by the wrong name.

You can become monolingual or bilingual at any time.

My brother who is half Serbian couldn’t speak until the age of 3. His speech therapist said it was because he was surrounded by people who spoke 2 languages. The child realized that the same things were named in different words but his brain needed more time to decode what he was hearing. Unfortunately, when my brother began to speak, we came back to Russia and stopped speaking Serbian. As a result, my brother began to use only Russian and became monolingual. He still can’t speak Serbian despite his multiple attempts to learn the language.

As for me, I continued to read books and watch movies in Serbian, so it helped me to keep my knowledge. 12 years later, I was sent to a sports tournament in Serbia and I could speak Serbian freely just in a few days thanks to my everyday communication with the locals. It was difficult only in the beginning when I could understand my interlocutor but it took some time to come up with answers to things. It’s like when you’re taking an exam: you know everything but you’re too nervous and can’t find the right words under pressure.

Later, I moved to Serbia, got a job there, lived with a Serbian family, and spoke both languages every day. Thanks to this experience, I soon became bilingual again.

This is a common situation. Milla Jovovich, for example, was born in Kyiv to a Russian actress and a Serbian doctor of Montenegrin descent. When she was a child, her mother tongue was Russian and perhaps Serbian. But her family immigrated to the US and she began to speak only English. As a result, Russian became a foreign language to her because she didn’t speak it on a regular basis.

Natalia Vodianova, on the contrary, became bilingual when she was an adult. She began to study English when she became a model. She manages to speak both languages perfectly due to the fact that she constantly travels between English-speaking and Russian-speaking environments.

The more languages you learn, the fewer words you know.

There was a period when I lived in Serbia for a year and couldn’t talk to Russian-speaking people, and we only sent e-mails to each other. Then I came to Moscow for a couple of days and couldn’t speak Russian for a whole day. Once again, I was too nervous. My brain could understand the words but I was unable to form my own sentences.

The memory capacity is limited. The vocabulary of each language in a bilingual person is usually smaller than the one of a monolingual person. But when a person starts speaking one language more, their brain makes more room for it.

To make your passive and active vocabularies bigger, you have to talk and write more, watch more movies, and read classic literature.

If you change your language, you change your personality.

Language is a part of another culture which a person has to adopt. A bilingual person sometimes has to try on an absolutely different image. Even their voice can change. Serbian women speak in a deep, low voice while their Russian counterparts have a higher tonality. My Serbian girlfriend’s tone of voice becomes higher when she speaks Russian, while my voice becomes deeper when I switch to Serbian.

It’s not only the voice that changes, but one’s gestures, their sense of humor, and mentality can all change too. Russian people prefer short phrases while Serbian people choose long, complex sentences you can hardly grasp the meaning of sometimes.

Your thoughts become bilingual too.

If you’re currently speaking one language, you’re thinking in it too. But as soon as the linguistic environment changes, your brain adapts to it.

The main factor proving that you think in a certain language is that you’re capable of building sentences without thinking about it beforehand. Even if a sentence is wonky from a grammatical standpoint, you shouldn’t be upset because knowing a language doesn’t mean you have be a perfect speaker.

A bilingual person doesn’t scream in their mother tongue in extreme situations.

They say that when a woman is in labor, she screams in her mother tongue no matter what —even if she’s a spy and has been living in a country for a very long time! Well, this is actually a myth. A person’s mind easily adapts to a new environment, and if there is an extreme situation, they’re more likely to curse or scream in the language everyone around them speaks. So it’s not all that easy to track down a spy.

Even gestures of a bilingual person change.

A foreigner can be recognized not only by their words and intonations but also by their gestures and motions. Russians, for example, count on their fingers closing them into a fist. Serbians do it the other way around. In Russia, women rarely shake hands but in Serbia, it’s normal. In Russia, when children want to answer a question at school, they raise their hand with an open palm. In Serbia, children show something like a “V” sign.

Sometimes your mind mixes up the languages.

It’s like false memories: sometimes you can take a word from one language and begin to use it in the other, believing that it’s being used correctly. Or when you’re tired or thoughtless, you can talk to another person in a language they don’t even speak. Some people mix up the languages they know intentionally. Eventually, they find it difficult to speak any of the 2 languages.

You never know in which language you’ll dream.

If in a dream I see a person I know, we usually speak the language we speak in real life. If I see a stranger, my mind decides in which linguistic environment we are, so the stranger speaks in this exact language as well as me.

But here is a curious fact: if you’re a spy and are inclined to talk in your sleep, you will fail your mission if your dream takes place where you speak your mother tongue.

Do you know any other interesting facts about bilingual people? Tell us down below!

Preview photo credit depositphotos, depositphotos
Illustrated by Leonid Khan for Bright Side